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Perched on the edge of Yellowstone Lake, at the heart of Yellowstone National Park, is West Thumb Geyser Basin. Pinks, blues, oranges, yellows, rusty browns, and verdant greens fill the hot spring-pocked landscape before running into the country’s largest lake above 7,000 feet.
Yellowstone Lake is shaped a little like a hand (you have to squint a bit and use your imagination to see it) and the West Thumb area is its swollen thumb. Actually a caldera within the larger Yellowstone caldera, West Thumb is home to at least nineteen major hot springs, geysers, and fumaroles. The bay was created by a large volcanic explosion about 150,000 years ago and the evidence of a dynamic earth still exists today in frequent seismic flurries (most of them small and undetected except by specialized instruments) and geothermal activity.
West Thumb is one of the smaller geyser basins in the park, but the springs are pretty, every type of thermal feature (hot springs, geysers, fumaroles and mud pots) can be found here, and the lake—and further back, the Absaroka Mountains—creates a stunning background.
One of the most famous geysers in this area, if not in the whole park, is the Fishing Cone. Legend has it that you can stand on the geyser, catch a fish in the lake, dip it in the Fishing Cone, and cook it on the line. No one knows how often this actually happened, but of course, it is illegal now.
West Thumb used to be the jumping off point for a cruise on the Zilah, a steamship that ferried Yellowstone visitors to the Lake Hotel before there was road access.
Plan Your Own Trip
What: A 0.6-mile boardwalk loop.
Why: Hot springs, colors. lake views, dormant gesyers.
Where: West Thumb Geyser Basin parking area, 1/4 mile north of West Thumb Junction.
Who: Anyone. Wheelchair accessible with help on slopes.
Need a trail guide?
My go-to, favorite hiking book for Yellowstone is Bill Schneider’s Hiking Yellowstone National Park.